Airlines have the opportunity to map a customer’s lifecycle — to go through the entire journey and learn about their needs at each touch-point. But corporate buzzwords aside, getting to know a customer has been key to driving loyalty since before the days of electricity, let alone the commercial flight. And with the increase in portable and wearable devices, both for the customer and airline staff, the opportunities have increased exponentially.
The way customers book, who they travel with, their response to e-mails, how they use the app or mobile site, whether they check luggage, their airport behavior, on-aircraft preferences, and how they interact with the airline’s call center, airport, and cabin staff — and any number of factors — are all ripe for predicting behaviors.
Most airlines can do this relatively simply, and many have done so, to identify what passengers need. The wide variety of data points, both online and offline, are helpful to spot these needs and segment passengers.
The next-generation of customer experience mapping has to go further. A single view of the customer has to continually evolve and work predictively: it cannot be a one-off snapshot. The watchword is customization — and planned, carefully thought through customization, with clear expectations, which airlines meet or exceed every time.
The fact is, even the most consistent of business travelers doesn’t always need the same thing on every flight. A top-tier frequent flyer business traveler on an overnight flight on her way to a meeting, for example, will likely want to focus on eating swiftly on board (or at the lounge), then heading straight to bed to maximize her rest time.
On a return day flight, however, she may want to either power down to get some work done or relax while watching a good movie with a custom cocktail. When travelling with her spouse, or with children or older parents, she may have very different needs, of course. Smart, customer-focused thinking can narrow down those needs to a point where the airline can meet them proactively.
These varying needs present both a challenge and an opportunity for airlines. On the challenge side, it is complex to customize passengers’ explicit needs and wants — and in some cases, the implicit ones that they don’t even know they have yet.
Some airlines are better at this than others. Singapore Airlines’ cabin crew, for example, are renowned for perceiving and meeting the needs of their passengers proactively, with grace, and with a smile. Yet there are many opportunities for technology to help airlines and their crew even if Singapore Airlines-style investment is not an economic opportunity.
There’s certainly algorithmic logic that suggests that if a frequent flyer is flying away from her home alone (or with an unrelated travelling companion whose work address is similar, and who is likely a colleague) in business or first class on a high fare booked close in to departure, without any checked luggage, she’s likely on her way to a meeting.
The airline can offer this high-value customer either a consistent experience (customized app reminders that an arrivals lounge is available at her destination to freshen up, say) or a surprise-and-delight moment (an upgrade, a sedan to the aircraft, say, or a complimentary code for the in-flight WiFi service with thanks for her loyalty) — or, indeed, both.
Similarly, if she is flying with three people who share her address and surname, with a checked car seat and luggage maxed out, this is likely a family flight. The airline can offer information about the most convenient door to be dropped off for the priority customer check-in areas when it’s time to go home, say, or highlight an early boarding opportunity — and avoid offering benefits like single-passenger upgrades that would disappoint a passenger for whom it might be impolitic to abandon her family in the class below.
And with mobile and wearable devices, airlines can create algorithms to continuously refine and customize the offer to the passenger. Checked in with three under fives? The check-in agent or a push notification can tell her there’s a play area by gate 14. Travelling with two over-60s? The lounge agent can gently ask if they would like a buggy to the gate, and highlight just how long a walk it might take, as well as annotating the file for the cabin crew.
If airlines can empower their staff to meet this flyer’s — and every flyer’s — varying needs, they drive loyalty. The trick, of course, is getting that view of the customer.